A veteran Democratic consultant was talking about next year’s Senate race recently and suggested that Carly Fiorina could be the toughest opponent Sen. Barbara Boxer has ever faced.

“That is, of course, if she wins the primary,” he added.

If you listen to the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, that June GOP primary is just a barely noticeable dip on her road to a fall face-off with Boxer, the Bay Area Democrat who’s held the seat since 1992. Since Fiorina finally admitted last week that well, yes, she really is running for Senate, she’s been on a none-stop attack against Boxer, who she described as “the opponent” at one campaign stop.

But some recent statewide polls, not to mention Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, suggest that Fiorina might want to delay putting down a deposit on an election night headquarters for November.

A Los Angeles Times/USC poll released Sunday showed Fiorina and DeVore each pulling 27 percent of the GOP vote in a head-to-head match-up. That’s not much different from last month’s Field Poll, which gave Fiorina a statistically insignificant 21 percent to 20 percent lead over DeVore.

But the Field Poll showed 59 percent of Republicans undecided and 70 percent of the voters in the Times/USC poll said they didn’t have know enough about either candidate to have much of an opinion about them, so there are plenty of people still out there to be convinced.

DeVore, a poster child for GOP conservatives in the state, already is slamming Fiorina as a tool of “the moderate DC establishment.”

“All the press accounts properly call her a centrist, a moderate, a pragmatist,” he told Eric Hogue, a conservative talk show host in Sacramento. “Look at the people who are endorsing her. You’re going to get (Maine Sen.) Olympia Snowe; you get (Maine Sen.) Susan Collins, (South Carolina Sen.) Lindsey Graham.”

While that’s a quote Fiorina probably would love to use in a TV ad for a fall campaign against Boxer, it doesn’t help a bit in the GOP primary, where conservative voters hold the power.

Still, there’s a whistling-past-the-graveyard tone to DeVore’s bravado. Even if you accept the questionable suggestion that Lindsey Graham is a moderate, another GOP senator who endorsed her is Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, who’s about as conservative as anyone in Congress.

Then there’s the money question. DeVore told Mike Zapler of the San Jose Mercury-News that he’ll have the money he needs to run a strong campaign and, besides, “we are methodically tying down the grassroots, the people who actually get out and work for candidates.”

Experienced political observers know that when a candidate starts talking about the strength of his grassroots support, it’s generally a sign the fund-raising isn’t going too well. And according to a Federal Election Commission report, DeVore had $144,732 in his campaign account on Sept. 30, which is enough to run a none-too-strong TV ad campaign in Modesto.

Although Fiorina said she’s doesn’t intend to pick up the tab for her entire campaign, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if she dropped a seven-figure check into the war chest, sooner rather than later. And her years in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley left her with plenty of friends who can write checks of their own.

DeVore’s fund-raising prospects got a boost when he was endorsed by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint and his Senate Conservative Fund. That backing, along with enthusiastic support from hot-talk radio hosts and right-wing bloggers, could open the wallets of conservatives across the country.

The money matters, but the key to DeVore’s chances is his ability to convince the state’s GOP voters that Fiorina isn’t one of them. He’ll try to paint her as someone being forced upon California Republicans by clueless national outsiders, a political newcomer who doesn’t respect their values or represent their views.

Will it work? Maybe not. But if DeVore can make enough noise to force Fiorina to slow her attacks from Boxer and take aim at him, it will be an interesting GOP primary race.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.